Who Is Unthinkable? On Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were’

March 26, 2021 | 9 min read

Fake news has never angered me on a visceral level. I don’t earnestly engage with conspiracists who fret about Satan worshippers or baby-eaters, for instance, and I have always found those who do amusing curiosities. For me, real anger has to imply a degree of sincerity and investment. Viscerally, I worry about how it is possible to possess the right knowledge without following through with the right actions.

It pesters me, for one, that I and every person I know agree with the scientific consensus that we are on track to log a two-degree temperature rise by 2050, which would herald “catastrophic” consequences. But few take this knowledge seriously. I’m not saying such a person doesn’t exist; that person is just weird and extraordinary enough to warrant his own ProPublica profile, and his profile reads more like a description of performance art taken too far than a considered ethical response to crisis. Dumpster diving for leftover food, practicing “humanure,” and driving a biodiesel converted car—the outlandish austerity of these practices make Peter Kalmus an archetypal American eccentric. But that view of him—eccentric!—defangs the righteousness of his undertaking. Kalmus has long ago given up any semblance of a “normal” life, and his wife is at the end of her rope. Who wouldn’t be, with a partner obsessively confronting everyone at every turn in all-caps “NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?” But maybe this is the kind of reckless abandon of social convention—or, conversely, the assumption of radical personal responsibility—that is demanded of us amidst systemic failure.

The pandemic has intensified my malaise regarding the irremediable gaps between the individual and the collective, knowledge and action. The absence of any coordinated response or consistent messaging has tinged daily decision-making for mundane tasks like buying groceries, sending kids to school, and seeing friends with streaks of nihilism. On some mornings, I think virtuously to myself of George Eliot’s line, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” I pat myself on the back for making unhistoric sacrifices for the sake of a greater good. But by the evening, as I drift to sleep, I dwell on how short life is, how it only belongs to me, and how I am therefore accountable only to living my best life for myself.

coverIn The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh, whose genre-crossing novelistic work integrates elements of fable, science fiction, and memoir, asks why climate change persistently eludes our powers of comprehension. The most compelling essay in Ghosh’s tripartite investigation focuses on the conventions and limitations of literature. Why is climate change and its impacts on our lives, he asks, so resistant to representation in novels?

The archetypal literary fiction novel, Ghosh claims, relies on establishing a “sense of place.” To succeed in foregrounding its own particular human drama, the novel has to first delineate a discrete space and time. Historically, this logic mirrors assumptions accompanying the social station of an emergent bourgeoisie in Europe. The family unit flourishes and enters society when it has carefully secured the property lines of its own well-pruned estate. Novels, too, are meaningful so long as their events and relationships unfold within their temporally and spatially bound settings. Against this backdrop, the “individual moral adventure,” which John Updike distinguished as the defining characteristic of the novel, takes place.

To illustrate the historical constraints of the novel, consider how uniquely absurd the following rewrites of classic works would be. A violent cyclone upstages the weddings at the end of Pride and Prejudice! A tornado destroys the March family home in Little Women! Believable? Not at all. These novels are rich and capacious enough to entertain deception and romantic betrayal, illness and even (offstage) war—but introducing the nonhuman agency of weather events to their plots would exile these books to the science fiction shelves.

Ghosh’s treatise diagnoses the symptoms of a pervasive cultural inability to grasp climate change in literary expression. Now, he poses, can the novel be remade? Can it be refashioned to tell stories about our collective predicament in the temporal horizon of the present rather than the future, the everyday rather than the fantastical? Or will the chasm widen between the literary mainstream and science fiction; between mundane life set in this world in the present, and supernatural events set in a fundamentally other world in the distant future?

Ghosh’s questions resonate with the frustrations I often have with myself these days. How long can I sustain the fiction of life as usual when the scientific facts scream emergency? Are readers and writers complicit with a delusion—indeed, a “great derangement”—of epic proportions? And why is our “collective predicament” so recalcitrantly inconceivable?

coverImbolo Mbue’s second novel, which follows her PEN/Faulkner winning debut Behold the Dreamers, casts doubt on the exasperating enterprise of crystallizing a “collective” challenge in climate change.

“We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known?” Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were, begins with these remorseful words, narrated in first-person plural. Her elegiac, post-apocalyptic narrative voice quickly brings into focus a standoff between representatives of Pexton—a multinational oil conglomerate that is polluting the air, water, and land of Kosawa—and villagers, who are dying from associated diseases. The villagers demand answers; Pexton officials tell them to carry on with their lives. Pexton smiles and tells them there is nothing to worry about.

For years, the villagers have attended these meetings to no avail. They go because they are required to, not because they want to. They silently curse the Pexton officials—their children are dying!—but they accept that they are powerless. This longstanding gridlock is finally dispelled when Konga, the village madman, steals the Pexton driver’s keys one evening. This impetuous action, committed by Kosawa’s inhabitant of lowest rank, should be easily reversible, except village custom dictates that Konga is untouchable. As such, there is no simple solution to ensure the safe return of the Pexton officials back to the capital city. As the situation rapidly escalates, Kosawa’s leaders are cornered into holding the Pexton officials hostage.

In How Beautiful We Were, the usage of the first-person plural contains none of the frivolity or falseness of contemporary invocations of solidarity among millennials or people living under late-capitalism—solidarities which only exist in the vaguest of ways. Here, the “us” is defined in opposition to “them”: governors in the capital and Pexton employees, who live in brick houses furnished with modern appliances.

This voice of solidarity also excludes Konga, who the narrator claims “had no awareness of our suffering and lived without fears of what was and what was to come.” Konga, the village idiot, is dismissed, mocked, and reviled by the villagers. Mbue restores suspicion to the first-person plural, reminding readers that any people who speak with one voice have repressed and excluded other voices.

What, then, is being repressed and excluded? For one, behavior that challenges the status quo—a status quo that is killing the villagers. While the villagers know that Pexton is the proximate cause for their maladies, they refuse to follow this knowledge to its logical consequence. Afraid to provoke a violent response from Pexton and the government—who are in cahoots—villagers fret about the uncanny illnesses afflicting their youth, but avoid looking apocalypse squarely in the eye. They suppress their own grief and anger, feeling “helpless.”

All of this leaves them with just a lamenting narrator, who has no recourse decades later but to repeat, “We should have known.”

On the other hand, the madman’s unexpected action sets off a chain reaction. For the first time in a long time, nothing can be taken for granted. The first-person plural voice fragments, besieged with internal questioning and conflict:

“How can you be so stupid as to think we have any chance? Konga has shown us we stand every chance. Konga is a madman. Perhaps madness is what we all need. How can you say such a thing? We were once a brave people, the blood of the leopard flows within us—when did we lose sight of that? We’ll be dead tomorrow—is that what you want?”

Presented with an opportunity to gain the upper hand in their confrontation with Pexton, the village leaders attempt to use their hostages as a bargaining chip. The villagers, for once, are optimistic. The tables have temporarily turned.

Their gambit is a risky one. And, eventually, it succeeds. Kosawa’s plight becomes the subject of journalistic reporting, fueling outrage overseas and throwing Pexton’s shady practices into the spotlight. But all of this is won at a heavy cost: a bloody massacre takes place, and several villagers, including children, are gunned down by soldiers in broad daylight. For a hint of progress, the villagers exchange unimaginable tragedy. This episode presages the asymmetric and unjust sacrifices Kosawa villagers make to have even the smallest chance at living healthfully on their land.

It also recalls a painful conversation between a husband and a wife in Kosawa the evening before he leaves to confront government men in the capital and disappears forever. The wife implores him not to go, knowing that the endeavor is doomed to failure and entails significant personal risk. The husband responds curtly, “I don’t understand: how can you not think about the future?” He continues, “You want me to not fight for my children’s future because you’re afraid.”

In this confrontation, both husband and wife are correct in their knowledge. She is right in her apprehension that he will be persecuted and destroyed in his search for the truth. And he is right that they will all die if nothing is done. She is driven by her familial self-preservation instinct, and he is moved to action by witnessing his own son’s bout of illness (from which he has made an unlikely recovery). Ultimately, she is left to suffer as a widow who cannot even get basic answers on whether and how he has died.

The heroine of How Beautiful We Were is Thula, the daughter of the disappeared father. A studious and intelligent child, she receives an unprecedented opportunity to study in New York. Returning to Kosawa as a revolutionary with global sensibilities, she travels from town to town to galvanize a national, anti-colonial movement, organizing joy-filled Liberation Day protests to celebrate power and strength among her people. Fully dedicated to her political vision, she refuses to marry and remains childless. Her friends and family look askance at her choice, though she remains widely admired.

After supporting his sister Thula for years, Juba recognizes that he does not have it in him to dedicate his life to a revolutionary cause that is not his own. “Our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could,” he relates. He rationalizes his decision by quoting his wife, who frequently says, “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.” This turning point is marked by Juba’s newly defined scope of solidarity, which contracts from his countrymen to his new family. When he invokes the first-person plural—who “we” are and what is “ours”—he no longer refers to his nation Kosawa or even his family of birth; he has chosen a new tribe.

Thereafter, Juba purchases houses, cars, and luxury clothes for himself and his in-laws. He is not the only one from Kosawa to take a government job and betray the revolution—in fact, many people his age do. It is significant, of course, that Kosawa’s descendants now drive cars fueled by the decimation of their ancestral land.

By the end of the novel, the elders have scattered and Kosawa has been fully taken over by Pexton. These elders, some of the last who have lived the majority of their lives in Kosawa, can only tell their grandchildren stories of what once was. This intergenerational novel thus ends where Kosawa’s lineage ends: Kosawa may have grandchildren by blood, but not by heart and soul. The memories of Kosawa will soon die out.

The grim conclusion to How Beautiful We Were is Kosawa’s extinction. Apocalypse, Mbue seems to say, is not mysterious, unimaginable, or unthinkable. It has been confronted many times before, by many different communities and people, and it will be confronted many times to come.

Today, it is common for artists and writers to harp about a widespread cultural failure to think in collectives. This line of thinking, modeled well by Ghosh, goes: if only we could think in aggregates, and reflect that consciousness in our expressive forms, then we would be better equipped to tackle climate change. Mbue’s novel follows in a long tradition of works that toy with collective perspectives and nonhuman agencies. The ambitiousness of Mbue’s four-decade, polyvocal epic yields some shortcomings: the facts of the narrative become redundant at times, and the repeated rehearsals of sentimentality do not always feel meaningfully distinct between the various narrators.

Still, what kind of clarity can Mbue’s storytelling—encompassing an intergenerational time horizon and occasionally a first-person plural voice—give us? What is gained when collective thinking and feeling is taken seriously?

My interpretation flouts the premise of these questions, and it is that collective subjectivities guarantee nothing. Until the apocalypse consumes us whole, it is possible, a survival mechanism even, to adapt by redefining our affinities and solidarities. By doing so, the end—for “us”—might be evaded for a little longer.

In How Beautiful We Were, the fault for Kosawa’s evisceration lies entirely and unforgivably with Pexton, systems of extractive greed, and neocolonialism. Nevertheless, this fact makes it no less dissonant when the children of Kosawa callously dismiss their parents’ deeply felt concerns about who is harmed by the oil they use. Kosawa’s last generation grieves: “It marvels us how much suffering we bore, our parents bore, our ancestors bore, so our children could own cars and forget Kosawa… One day, we know, our world and our ways will vanish in totality.”

When “the collective” is alluded to in discussions about climate change, it is assumed that the word points to humanity as a whole. Can this assumption be taken for granted? Can it be said that the consequences of climate change are unimaginable when they are already taking their toll in communities right now?

By definition, a collective is nothing more than a number of people loosely formed into a group. I cynically find a Darwinist hellscape of social fragmentation eminently imaginable: the wealthy will build higher walls to escape the coming ravages of climate change, and the dispossessed will falter and perish. In some ways, this reality is already underway. In this gradually arriving dystopia, collectives will tend toward entropy, atomizing until even the futures of their children, grandchildren, and the elderly are sacrificed as unavoidable collateral damage.

I am reminded of a lecture I heard during college. Most memorable was how my professor insisted on calling various acts of 20th-century political resistance “inhuman.” Gandhi’s non-violence, Nelson Mandela’s prison organizing, Martin Luther King’s message of love—he argued that these responses to oppression were so counter to what could be expected from humans that they were inhuman feats. I had only ever heard that word used in a derogatory sense, and was surprised to hear it in this context. What these political heroes—and so many unrecognized people—did was indeed extraordinary, but did it defy human nature?

The conclusion to Mbue’s novel does little to console the reader, but Thula’s character refutes the notion that cataclysm is fated for humanity. Intrinsic to being human is the germ of the inhuman, and it is the inhuman—rather than the clouded ideas of a natural and universal collective—that may need to be summoned today.

Bonus Links:
Dissidents, Revolutionaries, and Protestors: On Imbolo Mbue
A Year in Reading: Imbolo Mbue

is a writer and journalist from the San Francisco Bay Area who writes about literature in translation, contemporary art, and classical music.